St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Ordinary & Extraordinary

Ordin­ary & Extraordin­ary 

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, First Sunday after Christ­mas, 31st. Decem­ber 2017

Read­ing: Luke 2.22–40

Luke’s Gos­pel begins with extraordin­ary events: Zechari­ah the devout priest is vis­ited by an angel declar­ing that des­pite their age, his wife Eliza­beth is to give birth to a son who is to be named John. Hot on the heels of this event, the same angel vis­its Elizabeth’s rel­at­ive Mary and tells her that she will be the moth­er of Jesus who will be called the Son of the Most High and whose reign will nev­er end. We then have recor­ded the remark­able events sur­round­ing the birth of Jesus, the census requir­ing the jour­ney to Beth­le­hem, Jesus born and then cradled in a manger because there was no room in the inn and finally the vis­it of the shep­herds. Luke’s nar­rat­ive is orderly as he prom­ised it would be but you have to say the events he recounts are extraordin­ary. But on this Sunday after Christ­mas we move from the extraordin­ary to the appar­ently ordin­ary: Mary and Joseph going to the temple to ful­fil the demands of the law in the same way thou­sands before them had done.

Mary and Joseph were vis­it­ing the temple for two pur­poses. Luke tells us that they brought Jesus up to Jer­u­s­alem ‘to be presen­ted to the Lord.’ The back­ground to this present­a­tion was the Law of Moses which declared that a woman’s first child must be offered to the Lord. This offer­ing was in memory of the Exodus, when the Israel­ites escaped from bond­age in Egypt, fol­low­ing the last plague-the death of all the first born Egyp­tian chil­dren. In Israel’s early his­tory first born chil­dren were often brought to the temple to serve God there-we recall the story of Samuel and Han­nah bring­ing her first born child to the priest, Eli, to work in the tab­er­nacle. Over the cen­tur­ies this prac­ticed was dis­con­tin­ued but instead par­ents brought a dona­tion to the temple. The first born child was in effect being redeemed or bought back from God, who had declared in Num­bers 3.13, that ‘all the first born in Israel shall be mine.’

The second reas­on for the vis­it to the temple was for Mary’s puri­fic­a­tion which was sep­ar­ate from the present­a­tion. Accord­ing to the Mosa­ic Law a woman was unclean for forty days after the birth of a boy and eighty days after the birth of a girl. Fol­low­ing this time, the woman had to go to the temple and bring the required offer­ing: a lamb and a bird. How­ever, if the woman was poor she was allowed to bring two birds-pigeons or turtle doves. Mary was poor. Luke is at pains to tell us that Mary and Joseph ful­filled all the require­ments of the law. We may find the rituals that Mary per­formed rather strange, or even offens­ive but Jesus’ par­ents were simply doing the things that all devout Jews did. Jesus grew up in a fam­ily where the law was respec­ted and faith­fully observed. In his own min­istry Jesus would often be crit­ic­al of the teach­ers of the law, who made the law into a bur­den but he remained sub­ject to the law’s right­eous demands.

There is much to be said for observing reli­gious rituals. They help to main­tain an order and pat­tern in our lives. They assist us in keep­ing good habits like read­ing our Bibles, pray­ing reg­u­larly and meet­ing for wor­ship and receiv­ing the Euchar­ist. On the Sunday after Christ­mas I real­ise I’m preach­ing to the con­ver­ted-after all this is the Sunday for the true believ­ers –but we live in an age when rituals are often dis­paraged. When I retired from Hunters Hill, I was rather puzzled by the reac­tion of some of my fel­low clergy who said things like, ‘It must be great relief not hav­ing to get up and go to Church every Sunday!’ Meet­ing with God’s people on Sunday should nev­er be a bur­den or done simply because we have to!

But once again in Luke we move from the ordin­ary to the extraordin­ary. While in the temple observing the rituals of present­a­tion and puri­fic­a­tion, sud­denly Mary and Joseph are met by two people, Simeon and Anna who make remark­able claims about the child, Jesus. (Through­out his Gos­pel Luke will bring gender bal­ance to his nar­rat­ive. If he describes the heal­ing of a man we will often then find the heal­ing of a woman. A par­able about a man will be bal­anced by one about a woman and so on.) Simeon is described as “right­eous and devout, look­ing for­ward to the con­sol­a­tion of Israel and the Holy Spir­it res­ted on him.” The phrase, ‘the con­sol­a­tion of Israel’ expressed the hope that all devout Jews car­ried with them that one day God would send his prom­ised Mes­si­ah who would restore Israel to its former glory and bring peace and prosper­ity to his people. The Holy Spir­it gave Simeon the eyes to see that this child of humble ori­gins was none oth­er than the one long expec­ted. Simeon lit­er­ally means, ‘God has heard’ and this name fits per­fectly with what fol­lows in Luke’s account. Tak­ing the child in his arms, Simeon prays, using the famil­i­ar words of the BCP, “Lord, now let­test thou thy ser­vant depart in peace, accord­ing to thy word. For my eyes have seen thy sal­va­tion which thou hast pre­pared before the face of all people; a light to light­en the Gen­tiles and the glory of thy people Israel.”

Simeon’s hymn of praise has been part of Chris­ti­an liturgy from very early times often as an even­ing pray­er. Hav­ing held the Christ child in his arms, Simeon was con­tent and ready to die. He had wit­nessed the ful­fil­ment of God’s great prom­ise to send a redeem­er and there was noth­ing more that he wished for. As Chris­ti­ans we look for­ward to Christ’s appear­ance as King of Kings and Lord of Lords when he estab­lishes the new heav­ens and the new earth. But in the mean­time we have the light of his pres­ence with us day by day in the per­son of his Holy Spir­it. So, we like Simeon can have peace even in our troubled world. Mary and Joseph must have felt both pleas­ure and puz­zle­ment at Simeon’s words about their son but would surely have been troubled by the con­tent of his bless­ing: “This child is destined for the fall­ing and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Simeon under­stood that the Mes­si­ah would not be wel­comed by all- the king­doms of this world would res­ist the claims of the king­dom inaug­ur­ated by the child held in his arms. Mary would wit­ness her son’s great­ness but also wit­ness his humi­li­ation at the hands of cruel men. The expres­sion Simeon uses, ‘a sign that will be opposed’ can be trans­lated per­haps more accur­ately as ‘a sign of con­tra­dic­tion.’ In that case his words anti­cip­ate the ulti­mate sign of con­tra­dic­tion, namely the cross. The cross, the sign of pain and death becomes the sym­bol of hope and of life.

Like Simeon, Anna is old; eighty four years was well bey­ond the nor­mal life span for that era. Anna is a proph­et, wid­owed years before and she spends her days and nights in the temple, serving God by pray­ing and fast­ing. She, too, recog­nises that Jesus is no ordin­ary child and joins with Simeon in prais­ing God and telling people about this infant sent from God. Her words are not recor­ded but she rep­res­ents a vast army of faith­ful pray­ing women through the cen­tur­ies who have kept the faith in good times and in bad and who have served God and the Church with a min­istry of pray­er. So on this Sunday after Christ­mas we pause to remem­ber these two faith­ful ser­vants of God, Simeon and Anna who in an age of doubt and uncer­tainty con­tin­ued to wor­ship God and held firm to the belief that God would keep his prom­ises. May God give us the grace and cour­age to fol­low their examples.

Philip Brad­ford